“The story you know”, says the trailer for Parkland, a 2013 movie about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. You can say that again. It’s the assassination that launched a thousand conspiracy theories, and lent specific meaning to terms such as “book depository” and “single bullet theory”. In Ace Venture: Pet Detective, audiences had only to hear Jim Carrey say, “I was the second gunman on the grassy knoll!” to know exactly what he was talking about.
The most famous JFK assassination film, of course, is the home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder (played by Paul Giamatti in Parkland), footage that has been parsed, recreated and referenced so many times it has attained iconographic status. In turn, it has helped shape the event in the public mind. It wasn’t the first time an assassination had been caught on camera – footage of the death of Inejiro Asanuma, a chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, was broadcast live on Japanese TV in 1960. But it was the first political assassination to be so thoroughly absorbed, reworked and regurgitated by the American Film Industry.
One of the first artists to co-opt JFK iconography was Andy Warhol, whose Sixteen Jackies depicted serial images of the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy; he also cast some of his The Factory regulars in a never-completed film called Since (1966), a stylised recreation of the assassination in which Gerard Malanga shot Mary Woronov with a banana. “It didn’t bother me that much that he was dead,” Warhol said. “What bothered me was the way the television and radio were programming everybody to feel so sad. It seemed like no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get away from the thing.”
Other early adopters include John Waters, who in 1968 restaged the assassination in his parents’ backyard for a 16mm short called Eat Your Makeup, in which Jackie was played by Divine, and Brian De Palma, whose second film, Greetings (1968), satirised JFK conspiracy theorists before most of us were even aware they existed. But it was with the rise of the new Hollywood counter-culture of the 1970s, paranoia and disillusionment bolstered by the Watergate scandal, that allusions to the assassination, both implicit and explicit, began to infiltrate mainstream cinema. Eighteen years before Oliver Stone’s JFK, David Miller’s Executive Action (1973), starring Burt Lancaster as a black ops specialist, used archive footage of Kennedy and a quasi-documentary approach to support the now-popular theory that Oswald was a patsy.
There were also echoes of the JFK assassination in Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979). This latter film, adapted from a novel by Richard Condon (author of The Manchurian Candidate), had a troubled production history (one of its producers was murdered by the mafia in mid-production) and triggered a few conspiracy theories of its own, including that the Kennedy family had nixed it (Jeff Bridges plays the brother of an assassinated president, son of a Noah Cross-meets-Joe-Kennedy patriarch played by John Huston) and pressure had been put on the distributors to suppress it, to avoid jeopardising valuable defence contracts.
In American cinema, the events of November 1963 came to signal the demarcation line between the Age of Innocence and The Fall, and no Hollywood film set in that era could afford to ignore it. The cliché of extras huddled in collective grief in front of shop windows containing television sets, or characters weeping for reasons as yet unknown, became a feature of 1960s-set period films such as Philip Kaufman’s coming-of-age youth gang movie The Wanderers (1979) and the comedy-drama Mermaids (1990), and is currently to be seen (in a variation on the meme set in the White House itself) in The Butler.
The elements familiar from Zapruder are now so familiar they have attained fetishistic status and can be repeatedly riffed on without elaboration. In David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), James Spader drives a 1962 Lincoln Continental, the car in which Kennedy was travelling. Variations on Jackie’s pink Chanel suit turn up on Michelle Pfeiffer, playing a Jackie-obsessed housewife in Dallas on the day of the assassination in Love Field (1992), and Parker Posey, a Jackie-obsessive with borderline personality disorder in the indie tragi-comedy The House of Yes (1997).
The ex-costumed crime fighter known as The Comedian is shown on the grassy knoll with a rifle in the opening credits to Watchmen. For In the Line of Fire (1993), images of a young Clint Eastwood were digitally inserted into footage of the 1963 Dallas motorcade. In Zoolander, David Duchovny reveals that the gunmen on the grassy knoll were male models. In The Salton Sea, Vincent D’Onofrio plays a noseless meth addict who stages a reenactment of the assassination with pigeons (one of them wearing a pink pillbox hat) in a remote-controlled miniature car.
And we haven’t even got started on the novels (Stephen King’s 11/22/63, Don DeLillo’s Libra, James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, Gregory Benford’s Timescape) Broadway musicals (Assassins), computer games (JFK: Reloaded) and TV shows (Mad Men, The X-Files) including an entire subgenre of sci-fi episodes in which time travellers attempt either to thwart the assassination, or to ensure it goes ahead as scheduled (Quantum Leap, The Twilight Zone).
As Warhol said, “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel.” Over the past half-century, the assassination has been rehashed and referenced so much it has lost its meaning for everyone but the conspiracy theorists. Perhaps it’s a sort of public exorcism, in which the endless repetition of traumatic events divests them of their power to traumatise. Or perhaps it’s just an example of the media tendency to exploit public grief to such an excessive degree that the grief is eventually replaced by indifference.
Either way, expect 9/11 to receive the same treatment.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website, in November 2013. It has since been lightly edited.
All pictures except Warhol’s Sixteeen Jackies taken from The Kennedy Gallery, a treasure-trove of JFK-related visual material.